The Best Way to Spend 30 Minutes in the Gym

Julia Malacoff
by Julia Malacoff
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The Best Way to Spend 30 Minutes in the Gym

In an ideal world, you could spend an hour at the gym 3–6 days per week. In the real world, that’s not always possible. Whether you have work obligations, kids or just a jam-packed schedule, sometimes your workout can fall to the bottom of your priority list. But just because you’re short on time doesn’t mean you have to skip the gym completely.

In fact, there’s nothing wrong with squeezing in a shorter workout every now and then. In some cases, it might even be more effective than a longer one. Need proof? Here’s what four expert trainers do when they only have 30 minutes to work out, plus their rationales.

The Trainer: Mike Kneuer, certified personal trainer, nutrition coach and retired professional physique athlete.

The Strategy: Performing a full-body circuit is Kneuer’s preferred workout when time is of the essence. “The goal is to work as many muscles as possible in the shortest amount of time with minimal rest between exercises. By focusing on a variety of movements that work all the muscles in the body, I am able to go from exercise to exercise without my muscles getting too fatigued,” he says. “When faced with a time constraint, it is also a good idea to train larger body parts like your legs, chest and back, since larger muscles will burn more calories than if you did an arms-only circuit, for example.”

His 30-minute workout routine would look something like this: Start with a 5-minute cardio warmup, then do three rounds of 15 repetitions of the following with no rest: deadlifts, pushups, pullups, barbell shoulder press and medicine ball slams. Then three rounds of dumbbell squat to shoulder press, dumbbell chest press, seated cable row, battle ropes (30 seconds) and bicycle crunches. Finally, end with 5 minutes of incline treadmill sprints (30 second sprint, 30 second walk).

Why it Works: “This type of workout gives you a very big bang for your buck. It works the larger muscle groups and includes compound movements to give you a very effective workout in a short time period,” Kneuer says. “It is very efficient because you are constantly working one muscle group while the other is resting, but your body as a whole isn’t getting any rest.”

The Trainer: Holly Roser, certified personal trainer and sports nutrition specialist.

The Strategy: “When I have 30 minutes at the gym, I do high-intensity interval training. For my warmup, I’ll do jumping jacks, squats, high knees, lunges and burpees. I will also do some rowing. Total warmup time is 8 minutes. Then, I’ll do moves that involve multiple muscle groups such as squat to press, pushups, lunge to row, deadlifts, triceps dips, planks and step ups. In between these moves, I’ll do high knees, burpees or row to increase my heart rate and achieve an escalated calorie burn. For my cool down, I will walk on the treadmill for about 5 minutes and stretch after.” Roser recommends wearing a heart rate monitor for workouts like this to see how hard you’re working and ensure you stay within your target heart rate zone.

Why it Works: “HIIT workouts have been the craze for about several years now, as they yield the best results. The goal is to burn the most amount of fat in a short amount of time.” In fact, if fat loss is your goal, you might want to consider swapping one of your longer cardio workouts for a short, intense, weight-bearing one like this. “Give your body resistance and that time under tension will cause it to change,” Roser says. “You’ll get to your fitness goal much sooner.”

The Trainer: Maggie Winzeler, certified strength and conditioning specialist, an exercise physiologist and advisor at Fitiverse.

The Strategy: Winzeler advocates taking it fairly easy when you have a shorter amount of time to work out, especially if you’re already near your goal weight or have recently been pregnant. “Now that I’m in my 30s and have had one child (and hope to have more), I prefer to give my pelvic floor a break from jumping and high-intensity moves when I only have 30 minutes. Instead, I like to go out for a brisk run or do the stair climber for 30 minutes — which manages to kick my butt every time. These feel like more effective uses of my short cardio workouts than something like the arc trainer or elliptical.”

Why it Works: “As the mother of a toddler who juggles working and childcare, it’s quite often that I find myself with only 30 minutes to exercise. Ironically, I’ve found I have a lot more energy after a time-efficient 30–45 minute workout versus an hour-plus one. I rarely struggle with keeping those last five pounds off these days because my body is recovering better and not I’m not overtraining, which can backfire in terms of weight loss and muscle acquisition.” Plus, Winzeler says 30-minute workouts can sometimes be less of a mental struggle, since you’re more likely to work hard for the full duration of the session.


The Trainer: Meghan Kennihan, a NASM personal trainer and USA Track & Field coach.

The Strategy: “When I only have 30 minutes, I like to combine cardio and strength,” Kennihan says. “That way, I get the boost of endorphins from cardio and the definition that comes from resistance training while also elevating metabolism for up to 24 hours after my last rep.” Not only is this strategy efficient, but it also makes the session go by quickly. Here’s how it works: “I would typically alternate between treadmill sprints (2 minutes easy, 1 minute hard, two times through) and two strength supersets for 2 x 10 reps, like lunges and pushups. Then, I’d repeat the cardio with the treadmill or mix it up and do 5 minutes of jump rope followed by another superset pair, like 2 x 10 squats and bench press. For the last set I’d do cardio again, then 2 x 10 deadlifts and overhead presses, then finish with a plank.” Of course, you can sub in any exercises you like, choosing to use bodyweight or weights.

Why it Works: “In just 30 minutes, you can get the perfect full-body workout as long as you pick supersets that hit every muscle. I believe that a shorter workout should be higher intensity, however, if you only have 30 minutes every day, then you need to alternate between hard and easy days.”

About the Author

Julia Malacoff
Julia Malacoff

Julia (@jmalacoff) is a seasoned writer and editor who focuses on fitness, nutrition, and health. She’s also a certified personal trainer and Precision Nutrition Level 1 coach. Based in Amsterdam, she bikes every day and travels around the world in search of tough sweat sessions and the best vegetarian fare.


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